Eileen Myles is not a woman poet. She is not a rockstar. She is not a badass. She is not a Catholic. She is not a politician. Eileen Myles is not a New Yorker. She is not a nature poet. She is not cool. She is not a novelist, a Buddhist, a punk. Eileen Myles has been ducking and dodging labels for decades, since she fled humble Boston upbringings for creatively flowering 1970s New York to find her footing as a writer. In place of fixed labels, she has accumulated several books of fresh, powerful, meditative, and genuine poetry, stories, and essays, a libretto, a novel, global acclaim as a performer and teacher, and multiple awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship. I met her at her longtime, rent-controlled East Village apartment to talk about her most recent double book from Wave, Snowflake / different streets. Both books, varied in tone, are deeply reflective in their exploration of place, journey, identity and the discomfort and distrust of the idea of self. —MP
Morgan Parker: Start at the beginning. Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
Eileen Myles: I think there was a little religious poem I wrote when I was a child to manipulate my mother or the Catholic school. I knew I could do this thing. I knew I could do rhymes. And I seem to remember thinking that this would bring me something or another.
MP: How old were you?
EM: Around ten—I think?
MP: That sounds about right.
EM: Yeah, and then there was also some poetry I didn’t write. There was a poem by A. E. Housman : “Terence this is stupid stuff / you eat your vittles quick enough . . .” My brother was a chubby kid, and I saw this as an opportunity to mock him. I would chase him around the house reciting it at him. I definitely think there was some way I thought of poetry as being magic.
MP: As a tool?
EM: Yeah, yeah. With power.
MP: Did you have a lot of books in the house growing up?
EM: My family, we’re readers. Everybody went to the library, and bought books, but nobody went to college. We weren’t educated people, but we were great lovers of reading. And my mother was a really good reader of stories at bedtime. There was a whole thing around storytelling, and we memorized the stories that she told us and started to pretend that we were reading and then started to identify . . . so we learned to read before school, as a lot of kids do, I think.
MP: Thinking about your journey here, and writing as being “the thing” in New York, how did that happen? What was the impetus to leave your home?
EM: I had tried to leave Boston a ton of times—I went to Europe and hitchhiked around after college, and I went to California and tried to live in San Francisco a little bit, when I was twenty-two. I kept coming back to Boston, feeling like whatever it was I’d expected to happen didn’t happen. But there was always this thing—New York was 250 miles away from Boston, and I had this funny thing, a feeling that reality was here. And then when I got a little older I had some friends who lived here in New York. It was right around the time I was trying to leave Boston, and they lived on the Upper West Side. I’d go visit them. And my friend’s boyfriend was from New York, and he kind of showed us around a bit and I was like, wow, Andy Warhol lives here and Bob Dylan came from there and all this art and culture was actually happening here. I was very slow to actually get that it was now. It was like Paris in the 30s . . .
MP: Right, all these things from the past . . . . When did you realize that you were part of something? Or did you at the time?
EM: I think I wanted to . . . I remember wanting to be a part of something and coming here and very consciously trying to be part of the poetry worlds—I didn’t know which one was the real one, there were so many.
MP: Of course.
EM: And there are always men pushing you toward a certain one and pushing you away from another one. But by the time I was in my mid-twenties, twenty-five, twenty-six, I had gravitated toward St. Mark’s Poetry Project. They had these free writing workshops, and you just floated in on Friday night with your beer can and there was Alice Notley teaching a workshop and it was great. It was amazing. Already there was a certain culture around St. Mark’s writers, and they were the writers I was excited about. Soon I had a gang, we were young writers in our twenties and we were starting to publish each other and hold reading series and all that, and there was an Us. And that was when I thought, ‘Okay, I think I’ve done it.’
MP: What’s the role of performance in all of that, relating it back to reciting things when you were young? How do you think that performance fits into your work?
EM: Well I didn’t ever want to be a poet, per se. It was something I sort of fell into, but I always wanted to do something with my voice. In school, the nuns would have you stand up and read aloud, and if you were a good reader you never got to stand up long enough, you know, it was always the bad readers that got to stand up there and be stuttering and you were like arhhh! I had a girlfriend in college who had a friend who was a DJ at a radio station in Boston. And I remember going there and recording and just loving it. I had a huge desire to play music, and you know, like, be a singer or something when I was a kid. But there was no way.
I feel I was kind of messed up. My parents, they were sort of frustrated people, full of desire, they wanted to be things. I mean, we went to museums and the opera, which was sort of working class, and to the right. And there was a love of art, and film, and all this stuff. But the part about getting from here to being someone who was known . . . . They were not even encouraging in terms of education or making us do our homework or aspiring to go to a good school, or even going to college—none of that. My mother didn’t get it, my dad died when I was pretty young, and there was just no sense of how to make it happen. So, Cambridge and Boston, you know, because there were all those colleges there, there was always a great music scene—mediocre in every art form except for music. Clubs and folk music and rock and jazz.
MP: So many rock bands came out of there, which is great.
EM: Because you could play . . . . There were so many schools that would support a band, and you could make a living in Boston. It was like, get out of college and start a band or, there were great radio stations, and it was also that moment of the singer-songwriter, like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor . . . . There was kind of a lyricism that was individual.
EM: You know, and the lyrics were kinda good.
EM: I wanted to be one of those people. There was a poetry group that met in Harvard and there was this woman from New York who wore all black and had a medallion and was sort of Goth looking [laughter]. This was 1972 or three, and she talked about Frank O’Hara and the New York rock poet Patti Smith.
MP: That’s so great.
EM: And I was like [whispers] rock poet?
MP: What is that, even? [laughter] That is such a great label.
EM: As soon as I got to New York I got my friends to go with me to see her play, and that was amazing. But by the 80s it was not cool. By the 80s, it was performance art, and fiction, and culture was already becoming more commodified, more interested in money and being a wealthy, successful, high-power artist. A lot of my poet friends were starting bands; it was a way to be credible then, not to be a poet rocker, but to be in a band. But I was really resistant to that, and I think part of it was that I experienced myself as sort of a fuckup. And I knew that I had gotten this little thing going: I was making poetry work, and I had a little poetry magazine, and I had a little scene, and I kind of knew that. I was drinking very heavily and doing lots of drugs and stuff, and I kind of knew that if I went beyond what I was already succeeding in I would probably not do anything. I would probably mess it all up. I had very superstitious, caste-like feelings about what I was allowed to do.
MP: Those stay long, don’t they? [laughter]
EM: Were you brought up Catholic?
MP: Yeah, super Christian. I was reading the Book of Revelation at age nine. It’s very scary [laughter]. You know, but those things, they stay.
EM: So I felt like it was amazing that I could be allowed to be an artist but had to be invisible, and had to be small, had to not ask. You know, I asked for plenty when I got up at the mic and when I read, but I felt very superstitious about what my lot was.
EM: Until I stopped drinking; then it changed. But in the beginning there was an identification with music and yet, I was being minimal about it.
MP: Almost like not trusting yourself about it?
EM: Well, I think all the music that I could have was in my voice.
MP: Did you ever want to start a band? So many of us become poets because we can’t be like rock stars [laughter].
EM: I didn’t want to start a band, but I sort of wish there had been a band there.
MP: Right. [laughter] That’s interesting, because you have such a reputation as this rock star poet.
EM: Right, right.
MP: And how do you feel about that?
EM: Mixed. Because that term “rock star” has sort of evolved, even in the past ten years. And, you know, the poetry world is very funny—having too much of anything, other than poetry, has a way of making you somehow not a poet. I was walking to this reading in Brooklyn and somebody sent me a bio for something I’m doing in the fall, and it was exactly the kind of bio I hate so much. I was with a friend, and we were laughing. It was like, if I get called a badass one more time . . . . It’s so classist. It really means that she’s not right . . . I felt this sort of hidden homophobia . . .
EM: Hidden sexism . . .
MP: Absolutely. It’s so encoded, it’s so encoded. I feel like it’s a larger issue. And it’s something that I talk to a lot of my other women poet friends about. The sexism in particular. Like, how do you respond to male commenters of your work?
EM: The one thing about male critics, for instance, when they write a bio about my work, or a lot of women’s work, if there’s a kind of daily-ness, or kind of existence in, and if it’s a female existence, they it put down as boring details, a kind of shapelessness.
MP: Like Frank O’Hara never ‘existed’ [laughter] or something.
EM: Well, Frank O’Hara was making art, but a woman, like when a woman does it, she’s just talking about herself. The peculiar thing about a female existence is that it just adds up to female existence. Whatever that transcendent thing is that is extended to a man is kind of withheld. Unless you’re like Kathy Acker, somebody who was really in your face about the transgressions—she made sure everyone knew that she was appropriating; the tools were right there. Otherwise it’s like, you’re a girl just talking about yourself.
MP: Yeah. This relates to thoughts about class and gender that enter your work— specifically content-wise, but also performance. Men writers can take up space both in person at readings, almost to the point where you can’t breathe, they’re breathing all the air. And also on the page. I’m thinking about that in relation to your use of really short lines. They’re short lines but it’s not like they are shrinking away from anything. I think that’s a danger that women poets fall in. Do you think about content and form as going together or pushing against each other in relation to your particular perspective class-wise and gender-wise?
EM: They seem so organically connected to me. Form is an extension of content, I think. Because I’ve had subject matters that I’ve wanted to write about for a long time and I’ve had to wait for the rhythm, I’ve had to wait for a way to gear it. Because if I couldn’t hear it, I couldn’t write it. When I was writing Inferno, I wrote the first chapter [snaps] like that, just like that. And then I thought about what the next chapter was and this character, what did she do next in her life, and I didn’t have the information for that. And I started to try and write that and it was just a pile of stuff. I know when I’m just writing stuff and it doesn’t sing and it isn’t animated. But that’s not what I’m doing. Like, every time I get compared to Charles Bukowski . . .
MP: That’s so offensive [laughter]. Like the opposite type of human being.
EM: What happened in the writing of that book was that I had to literally wait a few years until I left New York, got a job teaching in San Diego, came back to New York, and we were interviewing people for jobs in a hotel where I was sort of, like, a failed sex worker. I thought ‘Oh God, that same hotel,’ and I came back here, and my landlord was gutting the building and harassing the present tenants hoping that everyone would leave, and it was cold as hell. And my girlfriend at the time was a young academic on the job market and we were freezing our asses with the cold, and then I wrote the next chapter of the book. I literally had to wait. What I’m saying is that there is something very generative and formal about my process that I’ll know what it’s about but the how is the thing that I’m waiting for. And sometimes it’s visceral and sometimes it’s historic, but I’ve got to find it, and that’s my search. It’s very animal. You kind of find it with your body in a way. The writing is a cerebral act, but the way is kind of visceral. I think there’s something divine about writing, it’s kind of old fashioned.
EM: I feel like I’m courting something.
MP: There’s such a sense in your work of being inside your own mind, which I love. But at the same time, you know, so present in the world.
EM: Other poets, like Philip Whale and Gary Snyder, whose work has been interesting and important to me, they have thought about that . . . attention is what they’re talking about. When I first saw his poems in my early twenties, it just changed everything. There was something about the pacing of his language and his laying it out that was so beautiful. He’s totally a master for me. I’ve heard horrible things about him as a man.
MP: You know that’s bound to happen [laughter]. I love that about your work. That kind of attention, it’s sort of a meta thing that happens. It’s inside your mind but also in the world. I guess I’m wondering, you know, it’s one thing for a Gary Snyder who takes time to be in nature a lot, but you’re reflecting on cities.
EM: I do nature, too.
MP: Of course. But thinking about how important being in cities is to your work, and how New York has almost become a character, and in Snowflake San Diego is there also.
EM: It was such a challenge, for years living in New York, people in New York would say, Don’t move to California, it ruins your writing. Everyone who goes to California gets a little light-headed. When I got there it was quiet, it was different, there were so many fewer people and so many fewer encounters and collisions and conversations, the things that made me be a writer. So I had to learn how to write in that, and of course when I came back to New York, the new dilemma was how do I get this back? How do I find this? I think I was still living in California when I wrote my Iceland essay. And that essay in some ways was really about how environment creates sound, how a music comes out of a place always, and we come to find it.
MP: Absolutely. I mean, do you feel like you’re in a relationship with New York?
EM: I do, I do. I think about how it feels today. And I love it. I feel like I’m myself here in such a deep way. I can’t imagine ever letting go of it. I mean we all love to hate it, too.
MP: Of course, that’s part of it.
EM: But it’s got a lot of character to me; it’s organic. And all the ways, as a New Yorker, all the ways that the city has gone through a change, like the gentrification and all that. But the ones, the big ones, like 9/11, the blackouts, there was one in the 70s, and Sandy, you know, it’s sort of like, being in New York when these big crises happen, seeing all of it act like an organism. New Yorkers have a very particular way of dealing with a crisis, together. And seeing each other and becoming more open, every time it makes me so astonished. You know, it makes me feel connected to something, it’s so spiritual. And everybody I know who is a New Yorker but wasn’t here for 9/11, it’s like ‘I was hurt and I wasn’t there.’ It’s intense.
MP: Do you think that that’s what was missing for you in California?
EM: I guess so. I mean, San Diego is a weird place.
MP: It really is.
EM: I mean the history of it. I read the history of San Diego called Under the Perfect Sun. The author is a Marxist who writes about places and his history of San Diego was really intense because it’s so right-wing all the way back, full of hate, full of racism, full of paranoia, full of anti-Semitism, and it’s just a small, mean little city. It’s on the border, and I guess because of its location it became a naval base and an air base and all the military and all the scientific . . .
MP: Which then just like fuels that whole thing.
EM: Yeah, yeah, and in a way it developed as an urban space to make bad decisions one after another and destroy its own environment and make bad choices and there’s that convention center on the coast, blocking your view of the ocean.
MP: Oh, it’s so ugly.
EM: Who would do that? There was something soulless about San Diego. And then there is this funny university in the midst of all that—and it was a pretty radical and pretty smart, small gang of people, but there just weren’t enough people and enough friends and enough conversations and faces. I had heard this myth about how you come to New York to be a writer and then you have to leave New York to be a writer. So I thought I was doing that, but of course within less than a year my relationship broke up and then suddenly I was in this house with my dog who was dying . . .
MP: I was so intrigued about how San Diego came up in the last books, because I feel like you’re using place in this way that you’re used to using New York, but you’re not there, so you’re reflecting on where you are and there’s a skepticism and distance there.
EM: You know, it’s funny that I wrote Inferno pretty much completely in San Diego.
MP: Oh, really?
EM: It was like I had to leave New York to write about it in a particular way, and so now, this new book I’m working on is about San Diego. I mean, in a way it’s about this dog, but it starts in San Diego with the dog dying. I’m very mediated, and there’s something I’m trying to learn to not do anymore, because I can have more of what I want now. Why do I have to keep trying to figure out what it is you want so I can decide what I can have? You know what I mean? I’m sixty-four years old, will I live until I’m ninety-four? Seventy-four? Or sixty-five? I don’t know. So I feel like I need to take this time on as space, and space in which to have my own vision and my own practice. I’m beginning to challenge some of the ways I’ve fit into the scheme of things. I feel like I’m becoming more introverted. Even, on a corny level, I’ve been thinking privately that I’m ready to Beckett. You know, I think of him as this sort of strange guy who called his own shots. That’s who we think of when we think of Beckett. And I think, I want to be that now, and even if I decide that I’m just living in New York and sitting here, it doesn’t mean I have to fill my day with what I don’t want. I can live a very private life right here, you know.
MP: It’s so cool that you’re talking about this, because when I was rereading the newer books, I was noticing this search for identity. Your work is always so confident, but in this work there were more questions than usual. And I liked that. It was vulnerable and true. But it was surprising to me, I think. I found something really lovely about the idea of getting older and then figuring, ‘Who am I? Wait a minute,’ and then even just the use of the word snowflake and the individuality of that. The uniqueness.
EM: And the fleetingness of the form.
MP: Exactly, and using your name so much. What were you thinking there?
EM: Part of the joy of coming to New York was realizing that you could make a shape, you could make a mind, you weren’t necessarily going to be challenged. It was sort of like the self as a performance.
MP: Oh yeah.
EM: I read The Bell Jar when I was pretty young and I remember her talking about being at lunch with a famous poet and watching the famous poet eat their salad with their fingers and her concluding that you can pretty much do anything if you act like you’re supposed to be doing it. And I really took that to heart because my mother was an orphan, and I only realized recently that, when we used to go out to dinner, she would often act really humiliated by our manners. But the thing that was so puzzling about it was that she had never taught us. She had not taught us any of these manners, she simply acted, and was shamed and humiliated by our behavior. And it was only recently that I thought, ‘She wasn’t taught.’
MP: No, she didn’t know.
EM: Both her parents were dead by the time she was eight, and so she was just passed around, I’m sure she was sexually abused, I’m sure bad stuff happened, because my mother carries all those things. So what she did instead of teaching us, she just treated us the same way as she was treated. She treated us like we were embarrassing her, like we were these terrible little orphans. Because that’s the only way she knew how to be a mother.
EM: So when I was younger, I was trying to see what the limits were. If I acted like I was a self, would you believe I was a self? If I was quiet and I didn’t saying anything, would you think that I was smart? I love figuring out how to let the whole process show now. For example, I used to hate people who included dreams in their writing. I thought that using a dream sequence was a manipulation of what you want to say. But now I’m like, of course dreams are fascinating. It’s like an object that is vanishing as you’re trying to describe it. The practice of trying to describe a dream is coping with loss. And that’s exciting to me. To try and transcribe one’s own thought process is incredibly beautiful now to me. It didn’t used to be. It’s as interesting as the world, it’s not being the world.
MP: Do you think that . . . describing or wrestling with the idea of the self is the same as coping with loss?
EM: Sure. I think it’s sort of like, what part of it are you going to hold? And how are you going to describe that holding?
MP: What are your impulses when you’re writing? What jumpstarts a poem? What are you obsessed with?
EM: You know, usually just a good sounding line, a line that I think literally holds something. I like it to sound really obvious and simple, but for it to be kind of shaky, and for me to know there’s something underneath. I’ll use that line to shake out the rest. I love the notion of bait-and-switch, you know, putting something out and it turning into something else. And I think we all know that, especially for women and may I say people of color, any of us, queers, anybody that isn’t necessarily part of the story that whoever they are is telling. It’s sort of like, you walk into a room thinking you know who you are, and what you’re selling, and by the way they treat you, you realize they’re taking you to be something else. And you’re being treated like that other person. I remember that as a young female poet, that I came in with my poems and I realized I was being received as a piece of ass. And it was like they were waiting for me to do my little dance with my poet’s poems so they could figure out how to fuck me. Wow, the world was baiting and switching me all the time.
MP: So how then do you turn that?
EM: Exactly. Formally, this is my response: You shall feel what I have felt.
MP: Almost . . . disorienting?
EM: Manage your own disorientation and turn it into theirs.
EM: The thing I find most unpardonable in readers, or people who have power over the experiences of readers, is the way they want to make them feel safe at all times, and not know what’s going on. I feel part of reading a text, or part of entering a room, or part of riding on a train or sitting in a movie, is to not know what is going on. And then you get it and then it changes, and then you get it again, and then you don’t know. Sort of like looking out of the train window and realizing that some of this landscape, I know what this is, and some of it I don’t know what it is. And that is not disorienting. That’s just the experience of being in the world. And yet, with text, we’re being compelled all the time to make it really clear for people.
MP: What do you think is the biggest distraction for women poets today?
EM: I want to say their beauty. It’s what people want us to be. You know, or our own sense of whether we’re there or not.
EM: I see it in younger, female poets. Sort of like, ‘Oh, you’re leading with that.’ And I certainly think that I did too. And, you know, not everyone in the poetry world is particularly good looking. But sometimes peoples’ perceptions of how you look
is why you’ve been allowed to be around. Or your own pleasure in how you look or your manipulation of it. And the aging process is so strange, I think, for all women, because whatever that story was, you’re someplace else now. And everybody’s always letting you know where you sit on the shelf. Like when I was going through menopause, it’s so strange, because I was going through this profound experience and yet, if I wrote about it, I got very weird responses. People were like, ‘I don’t get that,’ ‘I haven’t been through that yet,’ ‘I don’t know what that is,’ ‘oh, my mother should read this,’ ‘you should do an anthology.’ I had this essay in Inferno in Iceland that I could not publish because it was about the fact that I had this old, funky car that’s air-conditioning and speed were fucked up, and it would speed up and slow down and there was something really wrong with the electronics of this car while I was going through menopause. And these two things were very funny and and nobody would let me write about it. The piece finally ran in the shittiest little Bay Area gay newspaper and even they had to make a joke and the banner was like ‘raging hormones,’ I just wasn’t allowed to be . . . me?
EM: It had to be a joke. And that’s the thing I find so strange about being female, is that you’re making a joke and people have to make a joke on you and silence you with their joke, which is less good. You’re being dumbed down all the time.
MP: Right, right.
EM: Like you’re being castrated, basically. Where a man’s joke is always, ‘Oh, what a good joke,’ you know?
MP: I think that’s true, when you’re talking about using your humor. I’m so interested in that in writing, but I often feel like there’s such a disconnect with laughing with you or at you. And you have to be hyper aware of it. Like, if you’re writing a joke you almost have to be making two jokes at once to be on top of the scale, you know?
EM: Yeah. And if it’s discourse, if it’s out loud, if it’s a public situation, it’s like playing ping pong. Because you make a joke and they are so ready to make a joke of your joke and take power and you have to be so lithe to keep it your story.
MP: It’s hard work to be thinking of two minds at the same time.
EM: People are always ready to undercut a woman. I mean, I ran for president in 1992, and I’m proud of it and it was an interesting thing to have done, but people always put it in my bio as a laugh line.
MP: I was going to ask about that. I was a small person then [laughter] so that was not part of my experience of you. But what was that like? What were the responses? Because I do notice it in your bio, but it’s always placed strangely.
EM: Because there’s no right place for it. In the 80s I was reciting poetry as a way to make a living as a performer because poetry wasn’t a performance art. I was just memorizing my poems and presenting them in a performance context, but I didn’t have the capacity to move, I didn’t have the body language, and I didn’t want to become an actor. I was sober by then so I was going to AA meetings and I had learned slowly how to speak . . . because, you know, it used to be that I could only really talk when I drank. I liked Spalding Gray, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try improvisation.’ And the Women’s Theatre Company invited me to speak at their 20th anniversary, and I told the story of being raped. I would tell it like it was going to be funny, pleasant, and you could see the audience go, ‘Oh my God,’ and I would just keep talking, you know. I realized there was this amazing political power to speech. And that’s when the 1991–92 election began. George Bush was giving a talk about how activists, women, minorities, queers, anybody that didn’t like the way things were and complained more than once was the real danger to freedom of speech. And that’s when they took that left-wing language, you know, “politically correct,” and used it in a right-wing way. When I read that I just remembered thinking—I was forty at the time, or forty-one—I remembered when I was a kid and John F. Kennedy was president and everybody was like, ‘He’s so young’ because he had a head of hair as opposed to bald Eisenhower. But I was a kid, so forty was not so young, he’s an old man, you know, why is he so good looking? But I realized that you have to be what, thirty-nine or forty to run for president and so I thought, I’ll be a young presidential candidate.
EM: I had already written this Kennedy poem. And it was like the only poem I had written that took on political content in a real, in-your-face way, and it was exciting and I memorized it and I would perform it a lot like my hit poem. I didn’t know what to do after that in terms of politics, so I would do improvisations, and they would be my speeches, and I would talk about politics. My oath from April of ’91 was that until November of ’92, every public event I am invited to take part in, I will turn into a presidential opportunity—group readings at the café, memorial service, just, like, a panel, anything, I was just going to talk. But then I quickly realized that all I was doing was announcing it again and again, and I said, ‘I’ve got to get past this.’ At the time I had a mailing list of 400 people, so I got some friends to help me and I sent out a letter explaining the issues and why I was running, and asking for a small donation and they would get a button, and they would get a bumper sticker and they would get these monthly mailings. And it went like wildfire; I was on MTV, I was in these magazines, and I toured in 28 states. Even though it was sort of like, ‘Haha, you’re running for president,’ people were excited by it, and so they were telling me things that they thought: ‘You’re the only presidential candidate I’ll ever know, so I’m going to tell you this.’ And then I also realized that this is what it’s like to be a public figure, it never stopped. It never stopped. Every place I went people were inviting me to dinner, and they would say, ‘So, let’s hear about the campaign.’ And I didn’t want to do that, but I couldn’t say ‘I’m feeling kind of depressed, I don’t want to do that.’ So I started to make things up like being depressed being part of the campaign. I’m going to tell you exactly how I’m feeling while I’m running for office. So it was PMS, and depression, and weird things in my building, and it was like an amazing experience, and it was very deflating when it was over, too, because it was like, who am I now?
MP: Why do you think people were so excited by it?
EM: Because we’re so cut off by the system, I think. We’re so alienated and we’re so powerless, and I did not feel powerless during that time.
MP: To have it close.
EM: Yeah. And I realized all you had to do was apply the same logic you have in your life. Corruption is why it’s so hard. It doesn’t take much to figure out that you would reverse the defense spending and the domestic spending. you know . . .
MP: What are your thoughts about politics in your poetry? And how do you balance that with your opinions based on your personal life and kind of surreal moments?
EM: I think it’s like anything else; if content becomes too heavy then it’s just a holder of information rather than a sensuous thing. There’s a seduction in writing, and we all have these rhythms, and it’s sort of like, ‘If I want something, I’ll say it this way, I won’t say it that way,’ We all have different mixes. Politics is just another one. I’m excited when I can use politics in a poem. But it still feels like it needs to be held by a kind of embodiment, or something that makes it something other than pure information.
MP: So that people will hear it.
EM: I don’t want it to feel disposable. I want it to be as installed in the poem as the flower would be. In the world of gay poetry, I realized that there’s sometimes a tendency for the most successful poets to be writing metrics. And I don’t blame them, but when I look at their success, and I look at their sexuality, I think, does that normalize homosexuality for people? We can celebrate these queers because it almost makes the sexual removable, it’s just content. The form makes the content safe in a way. And that’s not what I want to do with politics. The poem makes the politics, the poem validates the politics in a way. Almost by its aimlessness, its surprising quality to have that in it, then that must be real.
MP: It doesn’t feel like, ‘Imma sit down and write a poem about this;’ it just enters as it would a life.
EM: Exactly. And I like that.
Morgan Parker is the author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize, and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Coconut Magazine, she lives in Brooklyn.
“Interview with Eileen Myles” originally appeared in Women’s Studies (TLR, Winter 2015).